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BREAKING: Kentucky will be good at basketball in 2016-17

You might not have heard of most of their players yet, but you will soon.

NCAA Basketball: Asbury at Kentucky Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

How Did We Get Here?

By the standards John Calipari has established in seven years at Kentucky, 2015-16 was what constitutes a “down year.”

The Wildcats “only” went 13-5 in the SEC, tied for the regular-season crown, won the conference tournament, and made the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Ken Pomeroy ranked the Wildcats sixth in the country at the end of the season, and Kentucky was ranked tenth in the final AP poll of the regular season.

In other words, it was a season that 99 percent of Division I programs would kill for. But it felt like a disappointment. That’s a testament to the high bar that Calipari has established: aside from a hiccup in 2013 when Nerlens Noel got hurt, the Wildcats have made four Final Fours, and the 2010 season ended in the Elite Eight. The Wildcats have won or shared four SEC regular season titles in seven years. So seven TSK contributors who all picked Kentucky to win the conference probably aren’t wrong.

By Kentucky’s standards, ranking 39th in the country in defensive efficiency -- as the Wildcats did in 2015-16 — isn’t all that great. Calipari’s teams have finished in the top 20 nationally in defensive efficiency four times in seven years, and a fifth team finished 32nd. This was actually the second-worst defense (after 2012-13) that Calipari has had at Kentucky. But the usual hallmarks were there: opponents shot just 42.7 percent inside the arc, and Kentucky blocked 14.1 percent of opponents’ shots.

The difference between last year’s Kentucky defense and previous editions: the Wildcats could stop a lot of shots in the paint, but also sent opponents to the foul line a ton. Four Kentucky big men committed more than five fouls per 40 minutes. In SEC play, opponents shot 46.3 free throws for every 100 field goal attempts, the worst mark in the conference.

That really overshadowed what a great offense Kentucky had in 2015-16: the Wildcats ranked fifth nationally and first in the SEC in offensive efficiency; the former was the second-best mark in the Calipari era, behind only the 2011-12 national title team. Kentucky led the SEC in effective field goal percentage and turnover percentage, and came in second in offensive rebounding. That meant that not only were the Wildcats making a lot of shots, but there were also very few empty possessions and a lot of extra shots.

Of course — this being Kentucky, you knew two things were true. One, almost nobody returns — the Wildcats lost five of their top seven players (and also a reserve who transferred), accounting for 76 percent of Kentucky’s scoring and 67 percent of its minutes played. And two, the Wildcats have a lot of talent entering the program: Calipari signed the nation’s second-ranked recruiting class per 247 Sports, and the Wildcats’ class had the highest average talent ranking in the country. Kentucky has five freshmen who were ranked in the top 25 nationally, and four ranked in the top 15.

There’s also just enough returning from last season that Kentucky isn’t completely starting over from scratch. One of last year’s five-star recruits is returning this year, as are two four-star big men (one of whom redshirted.) And there are three seniors on this team! While Calipari has become known for one-and-dones, Kentucky has five players on scholarship who aren’t freshmen.

It feels like you could write a lot of the same things every year. Kentucky is a clear preseason favorite to win the SEC, and it’s not a question of whether the Wildcats will be good, but how good.

Backcourt

# Player Height Weight Year 247 Rating MPG PPG RPG APG TPG SPG WS Notes
Tyler Ulis 36.8 17.3 3.0 7.0 2.0 1.5 7.1 Declared for NBA Draft
Jamal Murray 35.2 20.0 5.2 2.2 2.3 1.0 6.1 Declared for NBA Draft
Charles Matthews 10.3 1.7 1.6 0.4 0.5 0.4 0.6 Transfer (Michigan)
13 Isaiah Briscoe 6'3" 210 SO. 0.9953 32.2 9.6 5.3 3.1 1.9 1.0 2.5
25 Dominique Hawkins 6'0" 191 SR. 0.8665 9.2 2.3 0.8 0.5 0.2 0.2 0.7
11 Mychal Mulder 6'4" 185 SR. 0.9000 3.8 0.5 1.1 0.3 0.1 0.0 0.2
0 De'Aaron Fox 6'3" 187 FR. 0.9980
5 Malik Monk 6'3" 200 FR. 0.9963

De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk are the new guys, but Isaiah Briscoe is still here. The 6’3” sophomore struggled mightily with his jump shot as a freshman, shooting just 13.5 percent from three point range and 46 percent at the foul line. But Briscoe’s raw talent and quickness did lead to him getting to the foul line a lot, as he attempted 124 free throws, third on the team behind Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray (both of whom took a lot more shots overall than Briscoe did.) He also has good vision and at the worst, he’ll be the third guard for Kentucky.

But the freshmen won’t be easy to hold off. Fox, a 6’3” freshman from Houston, has great length and explosiveness and should be the starter at the point. Fox notched 11 assists in Kentucky’s two exhibition games. Monk also is long and athletic at 6’3”, and the two freshman guards could give Kentucky one of the best perimeter defenses in the country.

It’s an open question, though, whether there’s a shooter in this bunch. The three guards combined to attempt just eight three-pointers in two exhibition games, and while Briscoe’s issues with his jump shot are well-documented, both Fox and Monk’s outside shooting is well behind the other aspects of their respective games. Last year Kentucky could depend on Ulis and Murray to knock down shots, and it’s not clear that Kentucky has a deep threat this year. That’s a minor concern given that few players are going to be able to stay in front of Kentucky’s guards, and again, all three have the potential to be really good defenders.

Seniors Dominique Hawkins and Mychal Mulder are here for depth. Hawkins is a rare four-year player at Kentucky and has appeared in 83 games for the Wildcats, starting seven, and last year was his most efficient yet: while he only played 9.2 minutes per game, he shot 37 percent from the floor and scored 13 points in a December win over Louisville. Mulder played just 90 minutes after transferring from a junior college, but Calipari expects him to be a key reserve this year for the Wildcats. He did manage to grab 27 rebounds last year in spite of limited playing time.

Frontcourt

# Player Height Weight Year 247 Rating MPG PPG RPG APG TPG BPG WS Notes
Alex Poythress 23.6 10.2 6.0 0.3 1.2 0.7 3.5
Marcus Lee 21.8 6.4 6.0 0.3 1.0 1.6 3.1 Transfer (Cal)
Skal Labissiere 15.8 6.8 3.1 0.3 0.9 1.6 2.0 Declared for NBA Draft
35 Derek Willis 6'9" 228 SR. 0.9084 18.6 7.7 4.0 0.4 0.7 0.8 3.0
15 Isaac Humphries 7'0" 255 SO. 0.9797 9.1 1.9 2.4 0.1 0.4 0.7 0.5
1 Sacha Killeya-Jones 6'10" 230 FR. 0.9905
3 Edrice Adebayo 6'10" 260 FR. 0.9969
14 Tai Wynyard 6'10" 254 FR. 0.9531 Redshirted 2015-16
32 Wenyen Gabriel 6'9" 213 FR. 0.9951

Surprise, surprise: Kentucky will have one of the tallest frontcourts in the nation, with six players all 6’9” or taller. Edrice “Bam” Adebayo, at 6’10” and 260 pounds, has an NBA-ready body and good athleticism, and he’s an early frontrunner for SEC Freshman of the Year. Adebayo went for 20 points and 12 boards in Kentucky’s Blue-White game in October, and he averaged 11 and 10 (in limited minutes) in the Wildcats’ two exhibition games. But turnovers could be an issue: Adebayo had 7 turnovers in the Blue-White game and it’s an open question how he’ll deal with college defenses.

The other two newcomers might not be quite ready for the NBA, but both should end up there sooner or later. Wenyen Gabriel, a 6’9” native of Sudan, is a stretch-4 who can hit the outside shot, though his game inside the arc is still developing. But he’s long and athletic and a good rebounder already. Expect Gabriel to start at the four alongside Adebayo.

Who starts on the wing is an open question: Sacha Killeya-Jones, at 6’10”, is athletic and a good ball handler for his size, and also has a nice jumper. (Killeya-Jones is also an early contender for best hair in college basketball.) Killeya-Jones also has good instincts as a defender, and scoring on Kentucky with him, Adebayo, and Gabriel on the floor is going to be extremely difficult. That might be the deciding factor between him and Derek Willis. Willis, a 6’9” senior, is one of the SEC’s most dangerous shooters — last year, he shot 44.2 percent from beyond the arc (and a cool 50 percent in SEC play) and also shot 88.9 percent at the foul line. After playing sparingly in his first two years at Kentucky, Willis scored in double figures 11 times last season.

And yet, in spite of all that, Willis couldn’t manage to hold down a starting job -- at times, it seemed as though Calipari wanted Skal Labissiere (now in the NBA) to be the starter in the face of all evidence. The knock on Willis is defense, and that might mean his best role on the team is as an instant-offense sixth man off the bench for 15-20 minutes a night.

The Wildcats do have some depth in the frontcourt with Isaac Humphries and Tai Wynyard. Humphries is probably best known at this point for (inadvertently) costing Kentucky an outright regular-season title with a technical foul late in the Texas A&M game — which was also Humphries’ best game of the season (6 points, 12 rebounds, 2 blocks) in the middle of a stretch in which he averaged 15 minutes per game over a 7-game stretch. Otherwise, Humphries played sparingly as a freshman, but he did average 5 points and 7.5 boards in Kentucky’s two exhibition games.

Wynyard, a 6’10” redshirt freshman from New Zealand, joined the team at midseason last year and didn’t play. Wynyard made the New Zealand national team at 16 and, like Humphries, is solidly built at 254 pounds. He doesn’t figure to play a lot this year but could see time as an emergency big man if any of the starters are in foul trouble.

Schedule

Date Opponent Time (ET) TV
11/11 Stephen F. Austin 7:00 PM SEC Network
11/13 Canisius 6:00 PM ESPN2
11/15 vs. Michigan State (New York) 7:00 PM ESPN
11/20 Duquesne 9:00 PM ESPN
11/23 Cleveland State 1:00 PM SEC Network
11/25 Tennessee-Martin 7:00 PM SEC Network
11/28 vs. Arizona State (Nassau, Bahamas) 7:00 PM ESPN2
12/3 UCLA 12:30 PM CBS
12/7 Valparaiso 8:00 PM SEC Network
12/11 vs. Hofstra (Brooklyn) 3:00 PM ESPN
12/17 vs. North Carolina (Las Vegas) 5:45 PM CBS
12/21 at Louisville 7:00 PM ESPN
12/29 at Ole Miss 8:00 PM ESPN2
1/3 Texas A&M 9:00 PM ESPN
1/7 Arkansas 8:30 PM SEC Network
1/10 at Vanderbilt 7:00 PM ESPN
1/14 Auburn 4:00 PM ESPN or ESPN2
1/17 at Mississippi State 7:00 PM ESPN
1/21 South Carolina TBA ESPN or ESPN2
1/24 at Tennessee 9:00 PM ESPN
1/28 Kansas 6:00 PM ESPN
1/31 Georgia 9:00 PM ESPN
2/4 at Florida TBA ESPN or ESPN2
2/7 LSU 7:00 PM ESPN
2/11 at Alabama 1:00 PM CBS
2/14 Tennessee 7:00 PM ESPN
2/18 at Georgia TBA ESPN or ESPN2
2/21 at Missouri 9:00 PM SEC Network
2/25 Florida 2:00 PM CBS
2/28 Vanderbilt 9:00 PM ESPN
3/4 at Texas A&M 12:00 PM CBS

This is the usual Kentucky nonconference schedule. The highlights are, of course, the marquee games: Michigan State in the Champions Classic, UCLA at home, North Carolina in Las Vegas, a road game at Louisville, and a home game with Kansas in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge. There are also a couple of salty mid-majors in Stephen F. Austin (the season opener) and Valparaiso, and there’s a trip to the Bahamas to face Arizona State.

I haven’t been hearing any talk this fall about Kentucky potentially going undefeated, but there are enough potential land mines on the SEC schedule that even that portion of the schedule won’t be easy: the Wildcats play Florida, Texas A&M, Vanderbilt, and Georgia twice each, and those four were picked two through five in the SEC. Even road games at Alabama and Mississippi State could be potentially dangerous, and of course Kentucky will take everyone’s best shot. But it’s hard to see this team dropping more than a couple of games.

Outlook

Really, you could write about the same thing every year with Calipari at the helm. Kentucky is a preseason top five team and generally perceived as an overwhelming favorite to win the SEC -- though the latter is as much a reflection on the rest of the SEC as it is on Kentucky.

Kentucky is simply operating on a different plane from the rest of the conference right now. The Wildcats have finished in Ken Pomeroy’s top 10 five times in seven years, and they finished 13th in 2013-14 (and that year ended in the national championship game.) They’ve made four Final Fours. The relative down years still involve an NCAA Tournament appearance, and sometimes even a run to the second weekend. Calipari has signed eight recruiting classes at Kentucky and, per 247 Sports, every one of them has ranked #1 or #2 nationally.

This year, the Wildcats have six players in the frontcourt who are 6’9” or taller, and the three freshmen are all extremely athletic. In the backcourt, the Wildcats have three guards with good length and explosiveness. There might be a few kinks on the offensive end to work out early on, but Kentucky should have one of the best defenses in the country — there’s almost no way that Calipari won’t be able to coax a strong defense out of this personnel. What’s more, the Wildcats have plenty of bodies available to cover any injuries or foul trouble or just plain underperformance from any of the freshmen.

There’s really no question that this is the best team in the SEC; on a national level, it’s a question of how good the Wildcats will be. If everything comes together, of course, this is a potential national title team; but, of course, the vagaries of a single-elimination tournament could mean a (relatively) early exit. This should be a top ten team, but you might want to hold off on those national championship tattoos.